Sunday, September 19, 2010

North Cascades and Grizzly Bears

Grizzly bears in the North Cascades were in the news this week as the Forest Service has begun a field project looking for grizzly bears in Washington State's North Cascades Press Release Here. The quest for grizzly data in the North Cascades has been going on for a long time in part because Washington's North Cascades has been identified as a Grizzly Bear Recovery area. Grizzly bears are present in northeastern Washington in the Selkirk Range, and grizzly bears are present in the North Cascades and high interior plateaus of southern British Columbia adjacent to Washington's North Cascades. A few years ago the British Columbia government was importing grizzly bears into the Manning Park area to augment the population north of the border. The estimate by the bear folks I have spoken with are that there are perhaps 20 grizzly bears in the North Cascades.

During the summers of 1989 through 1991 I did extensive field work in the North Cascades that involved back backing deep into the wilderness. At that time there was a bit of a buzz about the possibility of grizzly bears in the North Cascades in Washington State as a number of unconfirmed grizzly sitings had been made. I was doing some work in the Park Creek Pass area and met a group of hikers very excited about a grizzly in the meadows just south of the pass. I headed up there from my camp in hopes of seeing the bear and because I had to do some rock collecting and mapping in the area west of the pass. I did see a very big bear. I watched it for awhile and then decided I really need to get past it in order to do my geology work. I let out a yell figuring the bear would move on and I could get by. The bear did not even look up. It was very focused on eating blue berries. There was not a lot of space to pass the bear, but I decided it was keener on the berries and I was of no interest so I proceeded to walk by it coming within about 30 feet. It was most definitely a black bear, but it was huge and I estimated it at 450 pounds. I was very uncomfortable being that close and found a much more distant route back to camp. Before dark a helicopter flew into the pass area and I later confirmed that the bear was identified as a black bear.
My other big bear encounter was about two miles past Monogram Lake along the divide between Marble Creek and Newhalem Creek. I was aware of bears being in that area and had set up my camp on a rather uncomfortable rock ledge immediately adjacent to a small glacier. It was a cold camp site, but surrounded by ice and rock for one quarter mile and I did not want to loose my camp to a bear raid like a geologist that had been in the same area a couple of years before. Sure enough my mapping partner and I saw lots of bears. We spent the better part of a day debating about whether one group were grizzly bears. They looked like grizzly bears, but it was my opinion that they were too small. To this day I am still unsure and I do not know if the Forest Service study will include the Marble Creek - Newhalem Creek divide.
The Monogram Lake and the high ridge behind it along the divide are ideal bear habitat and there are still plenty of bears up there. My son went up to the lake this summer and saw at least 7 bears and saw bears during the day "all the time".
Few people go much beyond the lake. When I was mapping up there I spent 12 days up there and never saw anyone. I also took two trips up into the Newhalem Creek valley and never saw anyone there either. While the area is isolated today, it was not always as islotated. A road used to go about five miles up into Newhalem Creek to within two and half miles of the ridge line and much of the Newhalem Creek watershed was logged in the 1950s. A marble mine was formerly located at the base of the ridge in Marble Creek. During my time on the Newhalem - Marble Creek divide, I found rifle shell casings indicating that the area was formerly used for hunting.
The area is now within the North Cascades National Park and is managed as wilderness and the bears are thriving. Whether or not there are grizzly bears above Monogram Lake, there is outstanding habitat and other areas of grizzly bear habitat exist throughout the North Cascades. But even if here are a few grizzlies left, the population is likely too small and will require active efforts including introduction of bears to stabilize the population. There have been approximately 40 "class 1" sitings over the past three decades and a mid 1990s study using hair snags similar to the new study provided DNA confirmation of one bear. The Grizzly Bear Outreach Program (GBOP) has received funding from Washington Fish and Wildlife and the Forest Service as well as private donors to help build understanding of grizzly bears as well as black bears so that if and when a recovery project starts people living near the recovery area will have a good understanding of the bears living near by even if they never see them.     


Sam Crawford said...

Dan, about 10 years ago I was camping with Mike Roberts up at Chowder Ridge (or whatever that's called) at the upper shoulder of Cougar Divide. 2 first-time hunters - airmen from Whidbey Island - bagged their first bear deep down in the valley to the east of the upper divide. They carried out the hide and the guns the first night (coming down as we were going up). After sleeping a few hours in their car below, they went back up in the early morning to retrieve the meat. They had put it in garbage bags hanging in the stream, to try to keep it chilled. Apparently when they got to it the next day, they found about 2/3 of it spoiled. They hiked back out with some of it, but I'm not sure it was going to be good for whatever they were going to make it into (bear jerky?). Anyway, that's my Cascades bear story. I don't know anyone that's claimed to have seen a grizzly.

Dan McShane said...

I have lots of bear stories. The most afraid I ever was regarding a bear was when I came across a recently poached bear in Canada and shortly afterwards met the hunters. They knew I had found the bear - made for a nervous night.
I did have the experience of getting between a sow and her two cubs. In that case I simply reacted and never felt afraid. By the time I could think at all we were all running away from each other as fast as we could.

Dan McShane said...

From Dave Tucker:
I climbed Little Devil Peak in 1991. I camped on a rock ledge well beyond Monogram Lake, 150’ below Devil’s Door. ON the next day to Li’l Devil with its fantastic intrusive dike. On the way down, the meadows around Monogram Lake were filled with grazing black bears, obstructing the trail. Had to bushwhack to get around them.
Another time [1972] in the Pasayten, high up on Freezeout Ridge east of Lightning Creek, an undoubted close encounter with griz. It was digging after marmots; I was within 100’ when I saw it- a silver-tip cinnamon bear, shoulder hump, dished in face, and long claws. Didn’t notice me, and I got out of there pretty quick. Didn’t carry a camera in those days.